Originally published in The Heythrop Journal, A Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology, 29:2 (1988), pp. 244-5.
Jewish Ethics and Halakhah for Our Time. By Basil F. Herring. Pp. xiii, 243, New York, KTAV, 1984, $15.00 (hardback), $9.95 (paperback).
A Book of Jewish Ethical Concepts, Biblical and Post-Biblical. By Abraham P. Bloch. Pp. viii, 294, New York, KTAV, 1984, $20.00.
Halakhah is the legal side of Judaism, comprising all the rules and regulations regarding the conduct of Jewish life, how the Torah is to be applied in every one of life’s situations. New problems are considered by the Halakhists in the light of the traditional sources of Jewish law—the Talmud, the Responsa literature and the Codes. The principles to be followed are discovered by an examination of these sources and then put to work. For instance, there were no life-maintaining machines at the time when the traditional sources were compiled so that when a contemporary Halakhist has to decide whether it is permitted in Jewish law for a physician to switch off the machine which keeps a patient artificially alive, he can obtain no direct guidance from the sources but he can find much therein about the sanctity of human life, the avoidance of undue distress and so forth and he will try to grasp the teaching of the Torah in his particular situation. Since a process of analogy is involved and this is notoriously inexact, it is no surprise that Halakhists will differ on the conclusion to be reached. Very often it is a matter of Rabbi A says this and Rabbi B says this and the rabbi called upon to render a practical decision is obliged to agonize over the problem for himself while doing his best to familiarize himself with what others have said. There is a degree of flexibility in the whole process and considerable room for individual assessment.
Rabbi Herring provides an analysis of nine ethical concerns, discussing each issue with full accounts of what the traditional sources have to say on the principles involved, though, occasionally, for all the thoroughness of his references and his familiarity with the material, he perpetrates one or two real howlers, as when he misreads the Hebrew word yir’eh (with an ayin, meaning, to tend) as if it were yir’eh (with an alef), to produce the absurd rendering: ‘A bachelor should not gaze upon a cow’ (sic). The subjects Herring considers are: telling the truth to a terminal patient, abortion, euthanasia, truth and the practice of law (whether an advocate should refuse to accept as his client one he knows to be guilty), civil disobedience, capital punishment, conflict in families, homosexuality, and smoking and drugs. In this latter connection it is interesting to find that rabbinic opinion, strongly influenced by increased medical knowledge about the harmfulness of smoking, appears to be veering towards a religious ban on tobacco. The presentation of the topics is well done on the whole and can provide an introduction into the methodology of the Halakhah.
Rabbi Bloch’s book is a further installment of his popular surveys; the others are The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days, The Biblical and Historical Background of Jewish Customs and Ceremonies, and Day by Day in Jewish History. Fifty-eight topics, alphabetically arranged, are discussed in this volume. To mention but a few, there are discussions on Arrogance, Compassion, Confidentiality, Drunkenness, Envy, Gambling, Hypocrisy, Respect for the Dead, Respect for Nature, and Respect for Man. It will be seen that, although in this book, too, Halakhic norms are presented, the main interest is in that other huge branch of Jewish teaching known as the Aggadah, all the non-legal material. In this area far more is left to individual temperament and the chief sources are the moralistic literature of Judaism which, despite attempts to make it so, cannot really be legislative. In a work of this kind all that can be expected is an anthology of Jewish sayings and attitudes. It would be unfair to Bloch to accuse him of ignoring the tensions which exist but, inevitably, granted the scope of his work, some of the topics are over-simplified, resulting, for instance, in the discussion on Asceticism, in the very dubious proposition: ‘Judaism is a this-worldly faith, primarily concerned with the quality of life on earth’. Bloch, again to be fair, does go on to divide Jewish teachers into strict and liberal schools in this matter but it is easy to see where his own preference lies. He concludes that the advent of Hasidism, with its stress on serving God through joy, led to a decline in the vestiges of the cult of self-denial. The truth is that Hasidic joy in the service of God, and even the Hasidic emphasis on reclaiming the ‘holy sparks’ in food, drink and worldly occupations, is all part of the tremendous Hasidic attempt to be with God in the mind all the time and at every step. It has nothing to do with enjoyment of the world and, since a constant devotional state of mind is required when satisfying the appetites, in order to elevate them to God, it is, in reality, a more severe form of asceticism than that of simple denial or rejection of the world.
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